An Architects View On Natural Disasters

“We have big, big problems – flooding, earthquakes and many foolish things which people are doing – I mean, these self-made catastrophes. We are able to give to every man on the street the possibilities to help himself. And to fight for this was one of my duties.”- Frei Otto, German Architect and structural engineer noted for his pioneering innovations in lightweight structures and tensile structures.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai’s total devastation in Mozambique, once again questions arise like: “With early warning, how many people could have been saved?” or “Would more people have survived if the infrastructure was designed to withstand such impact?” Natural disasters tend to focus our attention to things we otherwise might forget or take for granted.

What exactly is a “natural disaster”?

Lets first get our definition of a disaster straight: A “natural disaster” is when the systems and structures put in place by humans fail due to their inability to deal with natural events. It is therefore ironic that it’s then called a ‘natural’ disaster when it should be called a ‘human error’ disaster. Only by planning and thinking can architects and their architecture along with engineers and town planners downgrade natural ‘disasters’ to natural ‘occurrences.’

Prediction, prevention and planning

A natural disaster can be predicted. With the modern satellite intelligence, accurate weather predictions and scientific advances, we can see a storm approaching or the probability of an earthquake tracked. Of course nature is unpredictable and there are instances where storms behave with unpredictability, one such example being Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. It is still true though that the area is prone to tropical storms as a natural occurrence.

This poses two critical questions:

  1. Does the human race in the 21 st century have any excuse of not knowing or at least predicting natural events?
    Surely we know what the odds and probabilities are?
  2. Although we might not be able to accurately predict the size of a natural event we can work with scientific and statistic parameters that will inform and warn us. The question here is: What are we doing about the fact that we know it is coming?

Lets take Mozambique as an example. Mozambique is prone to around 1.5 tropical cyclones per year, but rarely more powerful than a Category 2 according to Corene Matyas, a tropical cyclone researcher at the University of Florida. (Source: National Geographic Article 19 March 2019). This particular storm was so devastating because it was unpredictable. Mozambique is also situated on the East Africa Rift system which means earthquakes are part of the geographical landscape with the last recorded earthquake in 2018. The point is taking the geography and weather history into consideration, these events is a natural part of the country’s geographic character. Everybody knew it was coming again but didn’t anticipate a storm with such magnitude and the aftermath of lacking infrastructure.

Secondary disasters:

With these events most of the damage and suffering are usually caused by flooding as a result of the event and outbreak of disease because of structural damage and poor hygiene. Wherever water and sewage systems fail, a Cholera epidemic is short on its heels.

What is the convenient excuse for not planning for these instances when you have the knowledge that a particular country or city is built in a geographical area prone to certain natural occurrences?

Money cannot be that excuse when houses and structures are built beneath flood lines and these laws are not enforced. Basic health and hygiene education, disaster plans and contingencies have to be part of every district and town in a high-risk zone. The planting and development of a town or urban area has to be structured and planned, especially in a high-risk zone.

Urbanisation must be a structured process.

If urbanisation is not structured and planned, there will inevitably be loss of life. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the USA was a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane in a geographical area prone to these events and once again the most lives lost was because of flooding and not because of the storm itself. The sad part is that there was time to do something about it before the flooding hit New Orleans and the water barriers around the town failed. When plans are structured, outcomes can be anticipated and infrastructure can be planned in accordance with its natural surrounds. Just like a good wine is made from the “terroir” – the climate, the soil, the weather and the artistry of the wine maker, so cities and buildings have to be planned in accordance to its geography and weather.

Isn’t it the core purpose of architecture to provide shelter from natural elements? Growth is an inevitable result of urbanisation and not planning for growth is in its own a natural disaster. On a smaller and less devastating scale, just think of the traffic you have to negotiate every morning on your way to the office…

Welcome to the world of lateral thinking and planning

Ponder these questions:

  1. Is there any excuse for not planning for urbanisation and its effects?
  2. Thinking and planning does not cost real money does it?
  3. What are the direct consequences of not thinking and planning?
  4. Will thinking and planning be able to pre-empt most “disasters”?
  5. Events only turn into disasters when there is no planning for it. Planning does not cost money if people in general took responsibility for their actions and follow guidelines and laws of a particular urbanised zone. Then disasters can be avoided, or at the very least handled more successfully with contingencies in place and relief plans carried out with more success.

Natural disaster in the developed world versus a disaster in a developing country

How do architects think about natural events and plan for it?

In his article: How architecture should adapt to climate change, Dutch architect Reinier de Graaff says: “Work in the wake of major disasters unfolds unburdened by the understandable yet misguided sentimentality currently attributed to the loss of buildings. We can instead focus on the real issues. Even if only a mind shift, perhaps that is the real contribution architects can make: an acknowledgement of the relativity of their own work.” (Source:

For too long architects have been focusing on the permanency of buildings. It is very easy to get caught up in the everyday systems and processes where we might not ask ourselves questions like “what if that river floods earlier than the predicted one in a 500 year cycle?” “Will this building still be relevant?” With Climate Change natural occurrences of these events have changed and urbanisation and population have made the reach of these occurrences so much more severe. Surely any architect worth their salt should at least anticipate a natural event in their area and the effect that could have on their structure and direct environment, and in so doing designing a climate wise structure.

Architects must respond to their environment and surroundings, and I would argue that projected planning for the future should also form an integral part of any design process. It is ironic that anticipated planning effect on cost will not be more expensive then any “standard” structure! In fact a well-planned structure will cost less over the lifespan of the building, because the decay and damage will be less. Taking Hurricane Katrina as an example, the USA is a developed country but the systems still failed. In the same breath the very specialised structures in San Francisco along the San Andreas Fault are keeping the bright minds and mega bucks of Silicone valley safe, for now.

Precedent studies

Thinking differently about infrastructure can save lives. In a project by Blue-Green in Mexico, Omar Vázquez Sánchez and his fellow innovators used the invasion of seaweed on the Quintana Roo beaches to construct houses in 15 days by using seaweed as primary building material. Not only was it proven to be hugely cost effective by reducing about 50% of the traditional cost of construction but the structure’s ability to withstand earthquakes and hurricane force winds are much higher than traditional building material.

Do you still think you need lots of money for smart structures?

These examples demonstrate that by planning and being knowledgeable and aware of the environment, architects could anticipate for natural events by not increasing the cost of the structure and in some cases actually do it for less than the going rate.

In a collaborative project headed by Professor Edward Ng from the University Hong Kong and a team of Cambridge seismic design experts designed this award winning structure after the destructive earthquake in the Guangming Village in 2014. This earthquake resistant house was built using very simple systems and I would also argue that when applied to the hundreds of millions of people exposed to earthquakes that this construction method would be more cost effective then the original construction methods of that area.

From indestructible concrete beach houses to blizzard ready Russian sky-domes and Tsunami houses it is clear that architects can prevent or decrease destructive consequences on structures when the geography, the weather and the inhabitants are all part of the planning.

The way we deal with the aftereffects of a natural “disaster” determines the future impact of the next natural occurrence.